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BHUTAN

Called everything from “the last Shangri-La” to “paradise on Earth,” Bhutan is a tiny Buddhist kingdom nestled in the Himalayas between India and China. Fiercely protective of its monarchy, culture, and ancient traditions, Bhutan remained almost completely cut off from the outside world for many centuries. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the country began to let in a trickle of foreign visitors. Roads, currency, and electricity soon followed. When television arrived in 1999, it was the last country in the world to receive it. Reflecting a longstanding belief in deriving happiness from life’s simple pleasures, Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuk then established a set of principles known as Gross National Happiness, an approach to development that seeks a balance between economic growth and the spiritual wellbeing of its citizens and the natural environment.

This cautious path to modernization has paid off for Bhutan, for it remains an isolated land of virgin forests, devout Buddhist monks, pastoral villages, ancient clifftop monasteries, and fluttering prayer flags. Exotic wildlife such as snow leopards, golden langurs, barking deer, and the goat-like takin still roam its enchanting mountainous landscapes. And lest they “disturb the spirits,” Bhutan still does not allow anyone to scale sacred Gangkhar Puensum—the world’s highest unclimbed peak.

Barely touched by modern civilization, Bhutan offers adventure travelers an authentic glimpse of an unspoiled land and harmonious society that is extremely rare in today’s world.

Bhutan Interactive Map

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*Destinations shown on this map are approximations of exact locations

Thimphu

With a population of about 100,000, one out of every seven people in Bhutan lives in Thimphu, the country’s capital. Home to the Royal family, Thimphu is Bhutan’s economic, religious, culture, and government center. As the only world capital with no traffic lights, Thimphu is a true blend of the old and the new, combining a small-town feel with flashes of modernity. You’ll see crimson-robed monks and locals in traditional dress on streets lined with restaurants, office buildings, and craft shops—yet there are also many serene monasteries, fortresses, and pockets of lush greenery. Archery tournaments take place on weekends at Changlimithang Stadium, and on most mornings local competitors come to practice with their traditional team songs and victory dances between rounds. The National Memorial Chorten, Thimphu’s most prominent religious structure, is a large Tibetan-style temple complex where locals come to worship and pay homage to Bhutan’s popular third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.

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Phobjikha Valley

One of Bhutan’s most picturesque locales, Phobjikha is a bowl-shaped glacial valley of rich wildlife, sacred sites, nature trails—and fewer than 5,000 inhabitants known as Gangteps. In the winter, globally-threatened black-necked cranes also make their home in the lush valley, which is also a favorite destination of trekking enthusiasts. Set on a forested hill overlooking Phobjikha Valley is the Gangtey Goenpa, a remote Buddhist monastery built in the early 17th century. Also known as Gangteng (meaning “hilltop”), the monastery includes a massive Tibetan-style tshokhang (prayer hall), featuring 18 great pillars around a three-story inner atrium. When the black-necked cranes come to the Phobjikha Valley to roost, they can be seen circling this historic monastery three times when they arrive—and three times before returning to Tibet.

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Punakha

Punakha served as Bhutan’s capital for more than three centuries, and is about a three-hour drive from the country’s current capital of Thimphu. This idyllic rice-growing region is home to Punakha Dzong, widely considered the most splendid of the fortress-like monasteries that dot Bhutan’s landscapes. Set at the confluence of the Mo and Pho (Mother and Father) rivers, the 17th-century fortress features ornate murals and serene courtyards—and is where all of Bhutan’s kings have been crowned. Another regional highlight is Chimi Lhakhang, also called the “Fertility Temple.” This yellow-roofed temple was built in 1499 to honor Drukpa Kunley, a rogue Buddhist monk known as the Divine Madman who remains one of Bhutan’s favorite saints. Kunley, who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan, spread enlightenment through an active sex life and is responsible for the ubiquitous phallic imagery found in Punakha and painted on many homes throughout Bhutan.

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Paro

The historic town of Paro is situated on the floor of a wide valley, outlined by crystalline rivers, and set against the backdrop of four-mile-high Mount Jomolhari. With a giant prayer wheel sitting at its center, it should come as no surprise that sacred sites and symbols of devotion abound in this charming valley town with colorfully painted wooden shops lining its main street. There are 155 temples and monasteries dating back some 700 years found in Paro, including Paro Dzong. Otherwise known as Rinpung Dzong, which means “fortress on a heap of jewels,” it is considered one of the most striking examples of Bhutanese architecture—and this 17th-century structure with its towering buttressed walls was also the setting for Bertolucci’s 1995 film Little Buddha. Paro is so charming that Bhutan’s royal family maintains a century-old palace here just to have a place to stay when passing through.

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Dochula Pass

Dochula Pass (or Dochu La) is a scenic mountain pass on the road from Thimphu to Punakha. Situated at an elevation of more than 10,000 feet, Dochula offers breathtaking, panoramic views of the snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas, including Mount Masanggang (Gangkar Puensum in the local language), the highest peak in Bhutan. Along with magnificent mountain views, the site features colorful prayer flags, a large temple, and 108 small chortens (stupas), built in memory of Bhutanese soldiers killed in battle.

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Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Perched on a cliff high above the blue-pine forests of the Paro Valley, Tiger’s Nest Monastery—also known as Taktsang Goemba—is Bhutan’s most sacred locale. Widely considered one of the most breathtaking sights in the world, Tiger’s Nest has its roots in the 8th century. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche arrived at the site in 747 AD on the back of a flying tiger to subdue a local demon. Then, after meditating in a cave for more than three years, the guru set about converting the Bhutanese to Buddhism. A pilgrimage site for centuries, all Bhutanese visit Taktsang at least once in their lifetime. But keep in mind that visiting something as special as Tiger’s Nest requires effort—especially for those without the aid of a flying tiger. At 7,000 feet above sea level, the valley floor is already quite high. Reaching Tiger’s Nest (which is at 10,000 feet) requires a two- to three-hour uphill climb along a very steep trail, and the final approach includes many stairs (about 700 in all) descending towards a bridge over a waterfall and then uphill to the monastery. The rewards are great for those who reach Tiger’s Nest, however. Many visitors claim that simply standing in silence among the clouds on the side of a mountain deep in the Himalayas is a deeply moving spiritual experience.

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Most Popular Films

Films featuring Bhutan from international, independent filmmakers

Bhutan

Meet the stylish locals and cheeky wildlife of Bhutan as you steal a glimpse at its temples, landscapes, and villages.

Produced by Clemens Purner

Measuring Happiness

Wellness in body, mind, and spirit is a national imperative in Bhutan.

Produced by Mariko Takayasu and Christopher Flavelle

2009 The New York Times

Incredible Bhutan - Paro Tsechu

Become a fly on the wall at Bhutan's Paro Tshechu Festival, where gazing at a colorful mural is said to cleanse one of sin.

Produced by Dave Fanner

Featured Reading

Immerse yourself in Bhutan with this selection of articles, recipes, and more

ARTICLE

Forty-four years ago, a tiny nation in the Himalayas made waves by announcing a seemingly radical new policy.

Growing a Better Society

Bhutan and the Gross National Happiness Index

In 1972, Bhutan unveiled its plan to measure success by GNH: Gross National Happiness. Unlike most countries, which focus on economic indicators like the GNP (Gross National Product), Bhutan established a set of benchmarks that examined quality of life more holistically, and allowed citizens to self-report their levels of satisfaction. As the minister of education wrote, “GNH is an aspiration, a set of guiding principles through which we are navigating our path towards a sustainable and equitable society.

The plan was the brainchild of Bhutan’s fourth “dragon king,” Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who was convinced that Bhutan’s unique way of life could only be preserved by promoting Buddhist  values over material wealth. Valuing culture and nature as important kinds of currency, Wangchuck created a ministry dedicated to examining happiness as a multi-faceted thing, influenced by changing factors, and measured not only by the individual but by the community.

The GNH Index was divided into nine domains: psychological well-being, time use, community vitality, cultural diversity, ecological resilience, living standards, health, education, and good governance. GNH census-takers fanned out across the nation to collect data on how citizens felt about each facet of their experience. While a majority of the respondents did indeed rate their happiness as high in many areas, the government soon learned where the nation was falling short as well.

Sowing the seeds of happiness

One of the most striking discoveries was that region alone heavily influenced which facets of life made people more or less unhappy. Rural Bhutanese people reported lack of education and low living standards as the main elements compromising happiness. The better-educated and more financially stable urban population of Thimpu reported more psychological stress and difficulty finding community.  With these results in mind, the government strategy was to directly address the relevant factors, hoping that this would yield a higher rate of happiness.

As a result, Bhutan changed its agricultural policies, improved access to education, required better workplace conditions, and fostered communal events in urban areas, especially those emphasizing culture and heritage. But the GNH model was built to be proactive, not just reactive. It not only measures what already exists, but shapes future policies. All legislation taken up by Parliament must now address the effects of a proposal on the GNH; bills are debated in light of how they impact governance, the environment, and cultural values.

Reaping the rewards

Over the past four decades, Bhutan found clear evidence that this model did make a difference—and the GNH index reveals it clearly. In the 2010 census, 90 percent of respondents said they were living happily, with the bulk of their GNH conditions met. Nearly 100% of the children have school access and life expectancy has doubled. And 60% of the country has been legally declared off limits to further development, so that the natural character of Bhutan is now preserved for future generations.

Such results haven’t gone unnoticed. In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly created its first World Happiness Report. 68 nations signed on, using a Bhutan-inspired model, and the number of participant nations has risen to 156. Unlike for Bhutan itself, the initial global results have been sobering; the most recent World Happiness Report noted that discrepancies in happiness correlate to inequality overall. And that this inequality is growing. As the report states, “People are happier living in societies where there is less inequality…[and] happiness inequality has increased significantly in most countries, in almost all global regions, and for the population of the world as a whole.”

Bhutan argues that continued vigilance as a society is key to fighting this trend and that the commitment must be long term. The Prime Minister once wrote that the GNH definition of happiness is different “from the fleeting, pleasurable ‘feel good’ moods so often associated with that term.” He went to note that the success of GNH was only possible when every member of society was included. “We know that true abiding happiness cannot exist while others suffer, and comes only from serving others, [and] living in harmony with nature.”

 

Bhutan and the Gross National Happiness Index

Bhutan: Month-by-Month

There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.

Bhutan in December-February

The winter months are the coldest season in Bhutan—but they are also generally dry with clear, sunny skies. The drop in temperature does keep most tourists away, so you can avoid crowds if you visit during this time. You’ll be rewarded with spectacular views across the Himalayas and potential sightings of black-necked cranes in the valley.

The higher you get, the stormier it will become, however. Heavy snowfall can lead to avalanches and icy roads, while high peaks and mountain passes can see gale force winds and thunderstorms from northeast winter monsoons. These wild storms earned Bhutan the name Drukyul, which means “Land of the Thunder Dragon.” 

Holidays & Events

  • February & March: Chorten Kora Festivals; centered around the Chorten, or Stupa, of Trashiyangtse, these festivals offer an alternative place for pilgrims to congregate, instead of making the longer pilgrimage to Nepal. Built in 1740, the Chorten itself is considered one of the most important historical Buddhist structures. Dates of these festivals vary by year. 
  • February: Punakha Tshechu Festival; this three-day long celebration honors Padmasambhawa, the yogi and saint who is credited with introducing Tantric Buddhism to the Himalayas with traditional dances and music by monks, culminating with the unveiling of huge painted silk Buddhist thangkas. Dates vary by year and this festival may fall in late February or early March. 

Must See

Take advantage of winter’s clear skies to garner spectacular views of the Himalayas. Whether you’re gazing up at its snow-covered peaks from the valley or looking out at the vast mountains from a higher perch—such as Tiger’s Nest Monastery—you’re sure to enjoy an impressive sight you won’t soon forget.  

Bhutan in March-May

Springtime in Bhutan brings moderate temperatures and a generally dry climate. The valleys burst into bloom this time of year, and the rhododendrons are especially vibrant. All of Bhutan's wildly diverse flora and fauna species awake during this season, making it ideal for outdoor activities such as hiking. May can see some rainfall, however, and rolling clouds could limit views of the mountains. 

Holidays & Events

  • Early April: Paro Tshechu; Bhutan’s largest festival, this five-day celebration features performances by masked dancers, Tibetan musicians, and sacred clowns (atsaras).

Must See

Visit Bhutan in the spring, and you will be treated to the country’s famous rhododendrons—which paint the valleys and carpet the hillsides with their vibrant colors.   

Bhutan in June-August

Summer marks the beginning of Bhutan’s monsoon season. Expect heavy rains, especially at night, and highs in the mid-80⁰s. Views of the Himalayas will be obscured with clouds, and mountain roads can be dangerous due to sudden landslides. This unpredictable weather keeps tourists away, so iconic sites will be free from crowds. 

Holidays & Events

  • Early July: Haa Summer Festival; a celebration showcasing the nomadic lifestyle of the Bhutanese.
  • Late August: Matsutake Mushroom Festival; held in both Bumthang and Thimphu, this annual festival celebrates the start of mushroom season with songs, dances, and traditional meals featuring the local mushrooms.

Bhutan in September-November

Fall’s mild weather and sunny skies make it a popular season to visit Bhutan. Hikers will be treated to a comfortable climate and fantastic views of the Himalayas—especially by November. Autumn is also chock-full of festivals this time of year, which attracts locals as well as tourists. 

Holidays & Events

  • Late September/Early October: Thimphu Tshechu; this festival honoring Buddhist saint Padma Sambhawa features masked dances performed by monks, chants, and the unfolding of the thangka, or sacred scroll.
  • October 14-15: Jomolhari Mountain Festival; a 2-day event held at the base of Mount Jomolhari, celebrating the communities coexistence with the natural world—in particular the region’s elusive snow leopard. 
  • November 11: Black-necked Crane Festival; an annual event to celebrate the return of the black-necked cranes to the valley.

Must See

In early November, the highly-anticipated Black-necked Crane Festival takes place in the Phobjikha Valley to celebrate the return of the black-necked cranes. Locals hold these birds in high regard and believe they represent the three sacred jewels of Buddhism.

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Bhutan: The Last Shangri-La

DAYS IN BHUTAN
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Hike to world-renowned Tiger's Nest Monastery
Explore the impressive Punakha Dzong
View Bhutan's unusual national animal at the Takin Reserve
Spend time at a nunnery in the Punakha Valley

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DAYS IN BHUTAN
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Hike to world-renowned Tiger's Nest Monastery
Explore the impressive Punakha Dzong
View Bhutan's unusual national animal at the Takin Reserve
Spend time at a nunnery in the Punakha Valley

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Find the Adventure That’s Right for You

Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.

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Easy

Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

Activity Level 2:

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Moderately Easy

Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

Activity Level 3:

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Moderate

Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.

Activity Level 4:

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Moderately Strenuous

Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.

Activity Level 5:

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Strenuous

Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.

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